Proposed laws may drastically limit wake surfing on Upper Willamette River

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Scientists say weigh limits placed on boats in the Newberg Pool Congested Zone in 2020 aren't low enough to prevent erosion.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Some members of Oregon’s boating community are hoping to make their voices heard during a hearing Tuesday afternoon as lawmakers discuss two bills that could severely limit towed watersports on the Upper Willamette River. 

The two bills, House Bill 2555 and House Bill 2725 are identical; the representatives sponsoring the bills say they don’t know exactly why that is, but they include the same legislation. 

If passed, the bills would limit the maximum loading weight of a motorboat to less than 4,000 pounds for a stretch of the Willamette River from the Willamette Falls upstream to the confluence with the Yamhill River – a span of more than 28 miles. This area, known as the Newberg Pool Congested Zone, was previously only 20 miles, but a proposed amendment to HB-2725 would expand it. 

“That’s going to drastically limit the amount of recreational boats that can go on the river,” said Matt Radich, president of Active Water Sports, a company with locations in Portland, Oregon City, and Canby that sells wakeboards and boats intended for wakeboarding and towing. 

According to Oregon State Marine Board, there are currently 406 boats with Towed Watersport Motorboat Certificates for the stretch of river between Oregon City and Rogers Landing in Newberg, known as the Newberg Pool Congested Zone. The average loading weight of those certified boats is 5,079 pounds. Radich and Oregon Families for Boating, a group advocating against the proposed boating laws, say the new legislation would mean about two-thirds of the certified boats would become ineligible to tow wakeboarders in the area due to their weight.

This chart from the Oregon State Marine Board shows the number of applicants who successfully passed and received their Towed Watersports Education Endorsement for the Newberg Pool and the loading weights for their boats.

Loading weight is the combined factory-specified dry gross weight of a motorboat and the factory-specified maximum factory ballast capacity of the boat. Watersports boaters will add ballast weight to their boat to control the size and shape of waves. 

Currently, motorboats are only allowed to obtain a towed watersport endorsement for the Newberg Pool Congested Zone if their loading weight is under 10,000 pounds. This law limiting the boat loading weight in the zoon went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. 

The Oregon Marine Board also enforced restrictions in 2020 that limited wakeboarding and wake surfing to just two small stretches of the Newberg Pool Congested Zone – a 1.6-mile span near Champoeg and a 1.4-mile span between Oregon City and Wilsonville. Wakeboarding and wake surfing are not allowed in any other part of the Newberg Pool Congested Zone. 

This map, current as of March 9, 2021, shows the areas where wake surfing and other watersports can take place in the Newberg Pool Congested Zone. Courtesy Oregon.gov

Although this law and added regulations were meant to curb the harmful effects of wake waves to the environment and shoreline, scientists say the weight restriction isn’t low enough.

“It’s pretty clear if you look at the damage, the damage to the fish habitat in particular, that’s being done that there seems — I don’t know how anybody could support such a large craft,” said state Rep. Jeff Reardon (D-Happy Valley), who’s sponsoring HB-2555. 

Reardon and Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie), who’s sponsoring HB-2725, say they’ve heard from a number of scientists, riverfront homeowners, paddle boaters and environmentalists about the problems wake boats cause on the river. 

They say the large waves these boats create cause silt to build up on the shore, impacting the habitat of young fish. They say the waves damage docks and houseboats and can be dangerous to other people recreating on the river in paddle boats. 

Reardon and Witt are both on the state’s Natural Resources Committee. On Wednesday, March 3, the committee heard testimony from professors at Oregon State University on potential effects of boat wakes on the Willamette River. The scientists argued that wake boating is contributing to erosion along the river’s banks. 

Both Reardon and Witt say they want Oregonians to still be able to participate in watersports like wakeboarding, but say this stretch of the Willamette River is not the place for it. 

“Oregon is not in short supply of places to go recreate on water and the Columbia River is a very big river in a place where waves really don’t have an impact where they do in such a narrow, confined space on that particular stretch of the Willamette River,” Witt said. 

The two representatives also recommended boaters instead go to the Lower Willamette River, Detroit Lake, or Henry Hagg Lake. 

Radich fears this could result in a new set of problems. 

“Then these areas are going to be really congested with people. So, anything that they think is going to help for safety issues in one place is just going to create ones in other places,” Radich said. 

He’s also concerned about what this legislation would do to small businesses like his.  

“None of the boats that we sell, none of the boats that any of the people that are in the tow boat business sell on the recreational wake side will fit that 4,000 pounds,” he said. 

Radich says it’s important to remember how boating contributes to other businesses too, like gas stations, convenience stores, and service centers. 

Reardon says lawmakers aren’t on a mission to harm these small businesses, but said tradeoffs are necessary to protect the environment, riverfront property, and the safety of others on the water. 

Tuesday afternoon, a public hearing is scheduled for lawmakers to hear testimony for those opposing and in favor of the legislation. 

In the testimony the Oregon State Marine Board plans to give at the hearing, they say one potential challenge of the proposed legislation is boat manufacturers are not required to specify the weight of the boats they build. Manufacturers of boats designed for wakeboarding typically provide the weight, but it is not as common for other types of boats. 

Radich was encouraging anyone passionate about wakesports on this stretch of the river to submit written testimony or sign up to speak at the hearing. Those who did not apply in time to speak at the hearing can submit public testimony until 3:15 p.m. March 10. 

Radich says he hopes lawmakers are still willing to negotiate on these laws. Reardon says he’s always hopeful he can find a middle ground on any issue; however, Witt says he feels the time for negotiation has passed.

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